It has been nine months since the Covid-19 outbreak began in the country. So far, there have been three crucial stages in the fight against this pandemic.
First, detection of the coronavirus infection; second, enrichment of oxygen in order to decrease the dependency on ventilator units at hospitals; and the third and final stage is now vaccine distribution – especially last-mile delivery – across the country. Pune’s Science start-up and research institute ecosystem has played a crucial role in all these three stages of the Covid-19 outbreak.
The Venture Centre of the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), alone, has supported and incubated 25 start-ups, of which three have played a super-important role in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the first phase, detection of the coronavirus infection, was the testing procedure. The RTPCR test took at least 24 hours to produce results. This was because of a very limited number of approved labs and kits available across the country for testing swab samples.
MyLab Discovery Solutions developed the first made-in-India PathoDetect Covid-19 Qualitative PCR test kit in a record time.
It further received necessary commercial approvals and the kit was launched across the country.
Phase 2: Oxygen Enrichment
With a rising number of Covid-19 cases, patients in a serious medical condition, requiring oxygen and ventilator support, were also increasing exponentially. The healthcare systems at Covid-19 hotspots across the country were failing only because patients were not able to get oxygenated or ventilated beds in hospitals.
Genrich Membranes Pvt Ltd, a start-up founded by Dr Ulhas Kharul and Dr Rajendra Kharul, stepped in at this crucial stage and supplied oxygen enrichment units (OEU) to hospitals. The NCL Venture Centre also played a key role in bringing together Genrich and Bharat Electronic Limited (BEL) to manufacture these units.
The feedback received from hospitals was encouraging as the number of patients requiring ventilator support started decreasing due to the OEUs.
Genrich is now in the process of obtaining an ISO 13485 certification for their product so that private hospitals can avail of the benefits of their product on a large scale.
Genrich not only provided OEUs, but also developed a prototype for virus-free air kits for frontline healthcare workers and doctors who had to wear the PPE kits for long hours while dealing with Covid-19 patients.
Phase 3: Vaccine distribution
Vaccine candidates are in process of getting emergency approval from the central government. However, the crucial task is to transport the vaccines vials to the farthest locations in the country. At present, traditional ice packs are being considered as vaccine carriers, but they pose many challenges, like maintaining the adequate temperatures till the vaccine is administered. The efficacy of the vaccine depends on these conditions and it is not possible to analyse the outcomes.
Blackfrog Technologies has developed a portable temperature-regulation device for last-mile transport of thermally sensitive biologicals like vaccines, blood, serums etc. The technology will be used for transport of biological samples (blood, sputum) from hospitals/remote areas to diagnostic centres that conduct Covid-19 testing.
They have already donated a unit of Emvólio – their portable medical-grade refrigeration system to the Udupi District Government Hospital for safe and efficient transport of Covid-19 specimens to laboratories.
Other Pune based start-ups involved in Covid-19 prevention, and precautionary, measures
The company has developed an endotracheal tube obstruction monitoring device. Covid-19 patients often experience shortness of breath, i.e. ARDS (Acute respiratory distress syndrome). All patients with this symptom are intubated using an endotracheal tube. Currently, clinicians monitor the endotracheal tube manually, which needs an experienced person. The company is also developing portable and affordable ventilators.
Developing nanocellulose based 100% soil compostable products as an alternative to single-use plastics. Currently, working on eco-friendly, food-safe, hygienic, antibacterial and antiviral hand gloves made from compostable biopolymers and reusable masks coated with nanocellulose formulation which offers antiviral and antibacterial properties.
Developing protective gear for frontline warriors and healthcare workers. They are developing a protective suit with the following properties: (a) reusable, breathable, and heat-absorbing fabric (b) smart indicators that can indicate contamination levels and (c) antiviral coating.
Developing immunodiagnostics ELISA kits using the Active Virosome (AV)-expressing S protein of Covid-19.
Repurposing an immune booster nutritional supplement as a therapeutic candidate for Covid-19. To be used as an inhaler for direct delivery to lungs.
The company has developed a dual powered defibrillator. This product is to be used in ICUs in case of sudden cardiac arrest for patients suffering from Covid-19.
Their flagship assistive device – JaipurBelt is an unpowered, lightweight (weight of helmet), efficient and affordable and patented exoskeleton that can protect the medical staff, healthcare workers and nurses from the fatigue and stress on their back due to long hours of work activities by off-loading the spine and waist up to a configured, variable limit without restricting body movements.
• Of 339 NCL employees, 24 were found seropositive in a voluntary survey
• Venture Centre is the only second organisation in India after Biocon Pharma in Bengaluru which has established a facility of government-supported Centre for Biopharma Analysis (CBA)
• Venture Centre is the nerve centre for the task force constituted for repurposing of drugs for Covid-19
• Under CAWACH initiative a nation-wide call has been announced requesting proposals from start-ups working on developing solutions for Covid-19 for funding assistance up to Rs 2 crore per start-up.
Dr Venugopalan Premnath, head, Venture Centre, NCL
“Pune has a culture of respecting knowledge and nurturing innovators. Thus, the Pune innovation ecosystem is one of the best for knowledge-intensive, inventive start-ups to take birth and grow. Pune has a conducive research culture, density of scientists and engineers, key scientific facilities, good quality of life to attract talent and a pool of budding entrepreneurs. Where it falls short is in a pool of investors with a risk appetite for scientific enterprises, maturity in innovation management capabilities in R&D institutions and a weak pool of experienced entrepreneurs in the scientific business space. Pune is working towards improving these weaknesses. Venture Centre has started TechEx.in as a technology transfer and innovation management hub. During the Covid pandemic, Pune’s start-up community really rose to the occasion and made us realise how important it is to nurture a start-up pool.”
Dr Rajendra Kharul, director, Genrich Membranes
“Pune ecosystem is quite useful and helpful. Genrich is fortunate to be a part of such a thriving ecosystem. The biggest advantage of such an ecosystem is that the peers, founders can talk to each other and exchange information on critical issues which saves their time.”
MyLab Discovery Solutions
Hasmukh Rawal and Shailendra Kawade founded Mylab Discovery Solutions in 2016. The company was self-funded and developed affordable diagnostic solutions.
The two co-founders were working with a US-based laboratory equipment giant Thermo Fisher before they started this company.
Their manufacturing facility is located at Lonavala Industrial Estate and approved by Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation
Pre-COVID revenue of Rs 44 crore
Funding of Rs 1 crore from Action Covid-19 Team (ACT); undisclosed amount from Technology Development Board (TDB), Serum Institute of India and AP Globale in April 2020.
NCL scientist Dr Ulhas Kharul along with Dr Rajendra Kharul and Kiran Bansode started the company in March 2015
It is a spin-off company based on proprietary technology from CSIR-NCL
Received grant of Rs 44 lakh from BIRAC in 2016; and NSTEB equity-funding of Rs 50 lakh in 2017
Founded by Mayur Shetty, Donson Dsouza and Ashlesh Bhat in November 2015
Incubated with Manipal Universal Technology Business Incubator
Received BIRAC Biotechnology Ignition Grant of Rs 50 lakh in 2017 to develop proof of concept
Located in Udupi, Karnataka and supported by Venture Centre, Pune as implementation partner
CEOs/Co-Founders/researchers about idea/current status
Dr Rajendra Kharul said, “We took advantage of the government scheme for scientists and thought of making use of the membrane science in the interest of society. Patients with respiratory diseases like asthma require handy enriched oxygen units like those available in the foreign countries. We thought of making such units which are affordable and easy to carry. We took help of the CSIR 800 project and installed such machines at the Chest Research Foundation, Sassoon Hospital and Primary Health Centre in Palghar. In the last one or two years we had several rounds of detailed discussion with private and government hospitals. During these discussions we realised that certification for the device is necessary and hence we are now obtaining ISO 13485 certification. After acquiring the certification, the product can be widely adopted in private and government hospitals.”
Mayur Shetty said, “Even before the COVID19 outbreak, there was a huge requirement for effective vaccine distribution especially the last mile delivery part. Polio, BCG, MMR all require cold chain infrastructure and traditional use of ice packs drops the temperatures below 2 degree which affects efficacy of vaccine. Our product was designed in 2018 and now we are scaling up the manufacturing. At present we have capacity if 250 units per month and we are increasing it to 350 per month. Considering that the COVID19 vaccine is on horizon, we are working with ISO 13485 complaint contract manufacturer which will enable us to produce one lakh units per month. We are live on ground in three states for delivering animal vaccines, human vaccines and COVID19 specimens like nasal and throat swabs.”
Hasmukh Rawal said, “When the first COVID19 case was identified in India and there was no Indian test available, we knew that the country will have to struggle to meet the testing demands. We have a deep expertise in molecular testing due to years of a work in this domain. We got our complete research team to focus on developing a test which is highly reliable and cost effective. Within six weeks we developed a test which passed the most stringent of criteria and at one- fourth the cost of existing tests. Our investors helped us to scale from near 20,000 test a week to 2 lakh tests a day.
Dr Sudhir Patsute, medical superintendent, Dr Naidu Infectious Disease Hospital, Pune Municipal Corporation
“Central line system for oxygen support to patients was not available at most government or civic hospitals. Using oxygen cylinders, transporting and refilling them was a difficult task as we were pressed for time. So, using portable oxygen enrichment units or generators was needed during the Covid-19 peak. Mild symptomatic patients could be provided with required oxygen support as the flow could be adjusted using the unit. This helped in keeping the oxygenated beds vacant for patients with severe symptoms.”
Dr Awanti Golwilkar-Mehendale, consultant pathologist, AG Diagnostics
“We are very happy with the kit. Availability of kits was never an issue. Results using the kit were and the technical support provided is equivalent to any other international company. The process of validation of the kit in the lab was very smooth.”